Sonjeke, Malawi — In Sonjeka village in Mulanje district, which lies on the border with Mozambique in southern Malawi, destroyed crop fields stretch almost interminably after floods ripped through them when Tropical Cyclone Freddy pounded the country.
One of those fields lying in waste with its drying maize stalks flattened to the ground, if not ripped off altogether, belongs to Eliza Mponya.
A field close to a hectare in size, this has been the lifeline for the single mother and her four children.
Not that it gives her all the maize which the family needs for the whole year, but it still gets Mponya and her children enough to carry them close to the next harvesting season.
By her estimation, this year, she would have harvested maize that would have lasted the family until the end of November.
“We had good rains here, and we were lucky because my son found piece work in Mozambique, and we managed some fertiliser through what he earned.
“But now, after all the hard work and just when we were close to reaping the rewards, we have this damage. It’s heartbreaking,” she says.
Malawi is in a mourning period, courtesy of the worst natural disaster to have struck the country in recent memory.
Exactly a year after the battering by tropical storms Ana and Gombe, whose devastation the country is yet to recover from, Tropical Freddy hit rather more brutally.
After barreling through Madagascar and Mozambique, the cyclone stormed into Malawi on March 11, 2023. From the afternoon of March 12, rain poured over 10 of the 13 districts in the southern region of the country for the next 72 hours.
Rivers broke their banks; furious waters gorged through unlikely landscapes, and, beyond anyone’s expectation, several mud avalanches pushed down giant boulders from mountainous areas that, in some cases, swept away entire villages and crushed homes and people below at night.
President Lazarus Chakwera declared it a state of disaster, calling for help, a plea to which both local and the international community have responded generously.
The scale of the destruction is unprecedented in any natural disaster Malawi has experienced. A draft situation report which the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA), a government agency, released on Wednesday, March 29, shows that up to 2.2 million people have been affected thus far; 676 have been killed, and 538 are missing – many of them feared to have been buried in the mudslides and rubble of collapsed buildings or washed away to unknown lands.
At the appropriate time, the police will declare the missing people dead, DoDMA says.
According to the report, up to 2,000 people are nursing various degrees of injuries, some while still in the over 760 evacuation camps that are hosting over 650,000 that have been displaced in the affected districts.
Up to 405 kilometres of road infrastructure have been damaged, and 63 health facilities and close to a million water and sanitation facilities have been affected.
The worst hit of all sectors, according to the report, is agriculture, the mainstay of Malawi’s economy. Over 2 million farmers have lost their crops and livestock, and over 179,000 hectares of crop fields have been destroyed.
Mponya’s field is among those counted.
Her maize crop would have been ready for harvest sometime towards the end of April. Now floods have harvested it, and Mponya is broken.
“I have never experienced anything like this in my life,” she tells IPS.
On March 23, 2023, the Ministry of Agriculture launched its own assessment of the damage the cyclone has caused to the agriculture sector in the region. It is yet to release its report on the assessment and the interventions that it will undertake to bail out the affected farmers.
However, in effect, the cyclone has worsened the food security situation for millions of people for the year. This comes against the backdrop of the government distributing food to 3.8 million food-insecure households, an exercise meant to see them through to the next harvest, which is now struck by the storm.
In an earlier forecast, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), a USAID-supported global food security monitoring activity, said the southern region could register a decrease ranging between 30 and 50 percent in the harvest of maize, Malawi’s staple crop and a key factor in the economy.
This, it said, would leave poor households running out of food stocks by end of August instead of October, as it usually happens with most such households in a good harvest year.
FEWSNET cited limited and delayed access to fertiliser for most subsistence farmers who rely on the government’s fertiliser subsidy programme that was rocked by logistical and procurement challenges in this growing season and due to high prices of the commodity on the normal market, which drove the farm input out of reach for most of them.
FEWSNET compiled the report before Cyclone Freddy lashed the country.
Christone Nyondo, a research fellow at MwAPATA Institute, a local independent agricultural policy think-tank, says the cyclone has effectively struck a blow on household food security in the region and the country.
According to Nyondo, families that have lost their food crops will struggle to cope without external help. He, therefore, suggests assistance for the affected farmers to replant short-duration maize varieties.
He further says crops that can still do well when planted under residual moisture should be promoted to provide a short-term coping mechanism for the households as they recover.
However, Nyondo argues that Malawi needs to invest in long-term and enduring disaster-proactive measures considering that these natural shocks will keep occurring in the face of climate change.
According to Nyondo, an agricultural economist, for a long time, Malawi has focused much of its efforts on post-disaster recovery. It is high time the country did a deep rethink of its policies and invest significantly in early warning systems and forward planning based on intelligence gathered from these early warning systems, he says.
“The specific interventions to safeguard food security will vary by season by the nature of the predicted disaster. If the predicted disaster is a widespread drought, then forward planning in terms of strategic investments in irrigation infrastructure will be key,” Nyondo tells IPS via email.
He adds: “But, in any case, we need to invest more in irrigation, storage and other critical infrastructure without waiting for disasters. That’s the surest way of safeguarding our food security. Yes, it will be expensive but it will also be necessary.”
Back in Mulanje district, Mponya has no idea how she will recover.
Unlike some people in her village, she has not suffered any damage to her house or the loss of any member of her family. But she says it is a tragedy of her life that for the first time as a farmer, the 51-year-old will harvest almost nothing from her field after months of toil, leaving her to face a year-long struggle for food.
Asked whether she has a way out, Mponya stares blankly and then says, “I don’t know what to do.”